(Hello! As longtime A.V. Club readers know, A.V. Club contributor Amelie Gillette took a job writing for The Office last year. Longtime readers also know that Nathan Rabin has traditionally covered The Office for T.V. Club. You'll also notice he's not anymore. Because we felt that anyone who is friends with Amelie should no longer write about the show we've brought in T.V. critic/scholar, and Office fan, Myles McNutt, who we're sure will do an excellent job (and never befriend Amelie.) Please welcome him and keep your comment-section hazing to a minimum.)
At one point during his coverage of the series last season, Nathan referred to himself as an “Office super-fan.” Let me be completely upfront about this: I am not an Office super-fan.
Perhaps I was back when Jim kissed Pam in “Casino Night,” but the show has been precipitously uneven since the start of the fourth season. There are still moments that remind me why the series used to be a weekly highlight — the Michael Scott Paper Company arc and “Niagara” come to mind - but for the most part the show has gone from subversive to subsistent. It survives because of our residual goodwill as opposed to boundless creativity, and last season was when that goodwill came close to running out for me.
However, with the seventh season comes hope: while some view Steve Carell’s imminent departure as a setback, I consider it to be an opportunity. The series has oscillated between a comfortable status quo and short-term conflicts for the past few seasons, but now the show will be forced to introduce dramatic change. The writers have an entire season in which to plan out this transition, meaning that a series that felt aimless last season has a new sense of purpose. Yes, there is every chance that Carell’s departure could ruin the series, but I would personally argue that the potential benefit of a fresher, more interesting series is worth that risk.
As a result, I went into “Nepotism” more curious than expectant: this season is going to be fascinating whether it falls apart or whether it rises to the occasion, and as a critic either option works for me. It would certainly be convenient if the premiere were to answer this question definitively, but the show is clearly not interested in offering a clear path to Carell’s exit. Instead, the episode is like a restaurant sign reassuring customers that they are still open for business during construction: change may be coming, but the series’ commitment to outlandish comedy and charming characters remains.
And, for at least tonight’s premiere, it’s even in pretty solid form.
Opening with a zeitgeist-chasing Lip Dub might seem like a step down for the show, considering that they reached their cultural peak more than a year ago, but I like what it says about this office: they would be a year behind the times in Scranton, and the scene has an energy that carries over into the requisite “How was your summer?” talking heads which transition into the episode proper. Some of what we learn is fairly slight: Kelly’s minority management course at Yale gave her the skills to pretend to be a manager; Michael got West Nile Virus and dreamed he saw Inception; Jim continued playing pranks on Dwight. Other things we learn are more substantial, like the news that Gabe stole Erin away from Andy; it isn’t the focus of the episode, but it subtly changes the dynamics of the office by defining Gabe outside of his role as Sabre representative. While there is no large-scale merger or corporate takeover at play here, things have nonetheless changed over the summer.
The most obvious change is the arrival of Luke Cooper, also known as the world’s worst assistant: he gets the coffee order wrong, he uses cruel nicknames for the employees (my favorite is “Nard Man,” if only for Andy’s “Nard Man’s my father” comment), he thinks bagel chips go with (soy) ice cream, he points laser pointers into people’s eyes, and he fails to send out budget reports, customer samples, and Michael’s pants he was returning to Talbots. Of course, as the episode’s title suggests, he wasn’t hired for his charms or his skills: he was hired because he is Michael’s nephew, and the episode goes pretty much as you’d expect from the time when that piece of information is revealed…until the point where it embraces the unexpected.
What makes this storyline work for me is the fact that Michael has a clear reason for wanting to hire his nephew. If Michael was defending an incompetent assistant who wasn’t a relative, the story would have been entirely inconsequential: the worst Michael storylines are those where they feel as if they have been designed to give Michael an excuse to do something stupid, embarrassing, inappropriate, or all of the above. Here, there was a legitimate emotional reason for his decision: presuming we can trust his word, he was cut out of Luke’s life by his half-sister on November 10th, 1995 (the day Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls was released in theatres). Michael, for all of his flaws, has an emotional side, and knowing that a legitimate interest in reconnecting with his nephew was behind this episode helps keep things in perspective.
Of course, the episode argues that Luke’s incompetence is perspective enough for Michael’s episode-ending “stress-induced episode” involving corporal (not capital, as Michael suggests) punishment. I’ll be honest in that I feel “Michael spanks his grown nephew!” was a tiny bit cheap, but what I found fascinating was that the office celebrated it: because Luke was so terrible, and because all of them had at some point wanted to do the same thing, they were soon thereafter reenacting the moment for Dwight and Pam (who I’ll get to in a moment) and having a big ol’ laugh about it. The scene was like a version of the sappy closing scenes on Modern Family, except the “family” was bonding over a manager abusing one of his employees. While “He deserved it!” is not the worst argument in the world, there is still something slightly unsettling about Michael’s outburst — which could have easily been replaced with a stern word or two followed by a simple firing — being placed into a heartwarming comic context.
The show has often walked that fine line with Jim’s treatment of Dwight: is Jim justified in his behavior because Dwight is so insufferable, or is it Jim’s duty to take the higher ground? For me, it all boils down to whether or not I laughed: while I may sometimes question Jim’s motives, so long as I’m laughing the show is doing its job. Some of the best comedies are those which simultaneously make us laugh and make us question whether or not we should be laughing, and so I’m glad to be challenged by The Office for a change. Above I complained that the show stopped being subversive, but Michael’s climactic spanking quite successfully (if not entirely) shook the series of its complacency: while I may have my own personal issues with how the storyline is resolved, the fact remains that in the shock of Michael’s action I laughed. Quite loudly, even. As a result, instead of ruining my enjoyment, my hangups simply contribute to the way the humor impacted me as a viewer.
If the conclusion of the A-story was designed to shock us, then the B-Story was designed to engage with our nostalgia for seasons past. Pam’s efforts to make up for ruining Jim’s key prank (connected to Dwight’s ownership of the building, which was a plot point I had forgotten over the summer) were not particularly brilliant, but they were also kept pleasantly simple: Pam decides she’s Scranton’s very own Bart Simpson, has Kevin mix up the buttons on the elevator, videotapes Dwight’s hapless efforts to force the elevator to obey his commands, and then is horrified when the elevator’s malfunction quickly leads to Dwight establishing a designated pee corner. The story works because it doesn’t try to be any more than that: we get to see Pam adorably trying to pull a prank, we get to see Pam’s quasi-failure lead Dwight into some ridiculous behavior typical of the character, and then we get the charming moment where Jim sees Pam’s effort and smiles warmly.
The two stories form a nice sense of balance, which is an intelligent decision on a number of levels. It helps convince those of us who disliked last season’s episodes that the show is on a better path, and it also reassures those who believe the show was as good as ever that no radical changes are in store. And yet, at the same time, it elides the one radical change that we know is in store: there are no hints regarding Michael’s imminent departure (unless we think Michael chose termination over counseling with Toby), with not even a single gesture towards who might be replacing him or how the office might be reorganized.
Part of me feels that this is a disappointment, and thinks that they would be smart to immediately establish how this transition is going to function. However, instead the writers chose to make one thing clear: although Michael Scott may be leaving, this is the same show it always was. Yes, this will be a season of transition and change for the series, and eventually that will become (perhaps painfully) clear. However, “Nepotism” tells viewers that the core values of the series will not be changing so quickly: there will still be lip dubs, there will still be talking heads, and there will still be staff meetings which go hopelessly awry.
And, bolstered by the knowledge that the show will only be able to remain in this holding pattern for so long, consistently humorous seems like a smart way for The Office to start this season’s journey.
- These reviews will be shorter in the future, I promise - there will be no need for the critical context after the first go-around.
- Yes, it is particularly fitting that the Office premiere would feature a storyline about nepotism when the reason I’m writing this column is due to precautions regarding the appearance of nepotism in these reviews.
- Highlight of the opening Lip Dub, set to The Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me,” was easily Dwight biting off the teddy bear’s head.
- Favorite line overall? Mindy Kaling’s delightful reading of “the level playing field is a zoning issue.” And the awkward silence which followed.
- Ryan’s “Wuphf.com” leads to a placeholder image, but it doesn’t answer my main question: why is B.J. Novak, more or less a bit player, still in the (newly altered) main credits?
- I don’t know if Creed’s backlash against Betty White’s online ubiquity was written before or after she signed on to guest star on the Community premiere (which Todd reviewed earlier), but either way it made for a fun connection.
- Evan Peters was given a lot to work with on the page in portraying the wunderkind of apathy that is Luke Cooper, but I thought he did a nice job with it (if you’re wondering where you recognized Peter from, the answer could be ABC’s short-lived Invasion, but it’s much more likely from this year’s Kick-Ass.
- If I had one primary complaint about the episode, it would be that no one pointed out in a talking head that how Michael tolerated Luke despite his incompetence is awfully similar to how the office tolerates Michael. I get that the episode was going in a more positive direction than that, but it still would have been nice for that to come up.
- Okay, one more complaint: no Amy Ryan. Thankfully, I was warned ahead of time about the lack of immediate action on the Holly front.